The western. There have been more films made within this genre than any other on the planet. That's mostly due to the absurd amount that Hollywood churned out in the silent era and the 30s, but it's still something that resonates with modern audiences, indicated by a few successful revivals here and there, such as Unforgiven (1992) and True Grit (2010).
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But although the world is captivated by an extremely short period in history — the cowboys that Hollywood romanticizes weren't around very long at all — video games haven't displayed the same fervor for the gunslinger. But why? The industry can literally place you in the Old West and give you free rein (hehe) of violent, yet beautiful terrain. Why do we have so few examples of great Western games?
The Elusive Cowboy
Without research, purely off the top of my head, these are the western video games I can think of right now:
- Red Dead Redemption
- Red Dead Revolver
- Call of Juarez
As someone who spends a great deal of time writing about video games (surprise, surprise), I'm amazed I can't think of anything else outside of these four. I adore Westerns — The Searchers (1956) is one of the best films ever made, and who doesn't love For A Few Dollars More (1965)?! — so how is it possible I can't conjure up additional names for gaming?
Simple: there aren't any.
Okay, that's a lie. But these franchises represent the most familiar and successful Western gaming adventures in recent years, and I only like one of them.
According to Wikipedia, there are 113 Western games in the history of the industry; 31 of them don't have their own page, over half of the games were made before 2000 and we could probably count the amount that are actually good on two hands. It's surprisingly low considering how the industry enjoys replicating a successful formula to death. I mean, why didn't we see an explosion of Westerns following the success of Red Dead Redemption in 2010? Why hasn't the industry taken advantage of such a great setting?
While Westerns are famous for a variety of beloved tropes that could certainly transfer well to games, there are disparate agendas when it comes to producing a successful game that could explain why.
Is It All About Gameplay?
In order to examine why basic gameplay design may be the cause for the lack of Western video games, let's take a look at the one that nailed it: Red Dead Redemption.
With the kind of resources on hand that comes with creating one of the most successful gaming franchises of all time, Rockstar took everything great about Grand Theft Auto and channelled it into something we'd never seen the likes of before. But this a developer with the kind of funding and staff that other companies can only dream of. Red Dead was rife with remarkable animations, engaging side quests, fun mini-games, great characters and superb gameplay design. All of this was wrapped around a mature and involving narrative that only Rockstar could have concocted.
But without these kind of resources at hand, I imagine populating a Western video game with the same degree of content can prove too difficult for a smaller developer. Sure, there are other ways of approaching a Western than making a sprawling open-world adventure, but if a studio is to capture the essence of this time period players need to be able to run amuck amongst the tumbleweed-laden streets and whiskey-drenched saloons.
Looking at modern video games, perhaps the Old West simply doesn't offer enough unique gameplay mechanics to match the potential that science fiction worlds are currently boasting. How many sci-fi shooters have we seen in recent years?
So perhaps limiting players to trains, horses and carriages, coupled with olden day weaponry, can't compete with what other developers are churning out. And of course, limited precedent means an uncertain market, and developers and publishers won't have guaranteed demand for these types of experiences. Sure, Red Dead Redemption nailed it, but perhaps it replicated this time period so well that it's become the definitive Western game.
Perhaps no one wants to try and make a product that will end up being inferior. Except Rockstar, of course, who are probably working on a sequel as I type. Hurry up about it.